The Chicago Tribune gushed. The Sun-Times raved. Time magazine glowed. Good reviews seem to be promising a future for Jason Robert Brown's new two-character musical, The Last Five Years, ending its extended world premiere run at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, July 1.
The intimate new musical, which charts the rise and fall of a marriage over five years, from different points of view, has become one of the top sellers in the 26-year history of the Northlight, a Chicago-area LORT house. Following raves (and a Variety review that was mixed), the show extended one week to July 1.
The New York Times reported June 29 that the show is expected to have a New York City berth this coming winter, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center Theatre. LCT commissioned the piece, but allowed Northlight to test it in a world premiere. LCT has not officially announced a production, but executive producer Bernard Gersten told The Times, "We're doing that show."
Norbert Butz and Lauren Kennedy are the singing marrieds in the intimate 80-minute musical, which opened May 23 at Northlight. In their glowing reviews, senior Chicago critic Richard Chistiansen of the Tribune, and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times, seemed to be egging on commercial producers, inviting a future production following the regional nonprofit debut. Commercial producers jetted to Chicago to see the show, which is directed by Daisy Prince, who also helmed Brown's Songs for a New World.
"Exhilaration, so intense that it brings tears of joy, is at hand in the premiere of The Last Five Years at Northlight Theatre," Christiansen wrote in the first paragraph of his review. Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Brown is best known for the Harold Prince-directed Parade (which earned the writer a Best Score Tony) and the Off-Broadway revue, Songs for a New World.
Although Brown is divorced, he said the work is not autobiographical. "Everything I write comes from my life," he told Playbill On-Line. "But I'm not narcissistic or sadistic enough to make the contents of my marriage a matter of public record, you know what I mean? That wasn't the aim of the piece. I think in writing a show about a couple that fall apart, I was hoping that I'd maybe be able to come to terms with that in my own life. But I wasn't going to come to terms with it by writing something about me."
Between May 25-27, the musical "sold more tickets in a single weekend than any other Northlight production ever at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie," a spokesman said. It's "the second fastest starter" to Northlight's all-time box office record-holder in its 26 year history, Always Patsy Cline in 1994.
Performances of The Last Five Years were originally announced to run to June 24. Previews began May 16.
The two-person tuner follows the relationship of a "nice Jewish boy" and an Irish Catholic girl in New York City. During a five year period, they fall in love, marry and their bond loosens into divorce. Tom Murray musical directs. Brown is in residence at Northlight during the run of the staging, and conducts the six piece band (and plays piano).
Insiders say the show is crafty and on a small enough physical scale that it will eventually be a hot property on the regional theatre market.
Butz appeared as Roger in Rent on Broadway, toured as the Emcee in Cabaret and was featured in the recent Off-Broadway staging of Saved. Kennedy's credits include the recent Arlington, VA, staging of The Rhythm Club, Broadway's Side Show and Sunset Boulevard in New York and Los Angeles and tour.
The conceit of The Last Five Years has the woman, Kathleen, an actress, beginning her story at the end of the relationship and working her way back, and Jamie, a novelist, starting from the first date and working forward. They sing together only once, in the middle of the play, at their wedding.
"I find it incredibly close to the bone, especially being a performer myself," observed Northlight artistic director B.J. Jones. "This deals with an actress and a novelist. When one career takes off and the other doesn't, I think that's close to the bone for anyone in this day and age of two-career partnerships. All the while, it's very funny and the structure has a wonderful sort of counterpoint quality; it makes each song more resonant because of where it lies in the journey."
Jewish and Irish musical themes are woven with contemporary pop and Broadway sounds to create a multicultural urban atmosphere.
Brown was music director of Dinah Was, which Northlight presented in 1998-99. Subsequently, he accepted Northlight artistic director Jones' offer of the 350-seat Skokie Northlight venue for the premiere of a vest-pocket musical. Brown was working on a two-person show for Lincoln Center that the New York non-profit wasn't ready to do, and Brown and Lincoln Center said Northlight could test it. The show turned out to be The Last Five Years, which has some spoken dialog in it, but is mostly sung-through.
The design team is Beowolf Boritt (set and costumes), Chris Binder (lighting) and Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen and Ray Nardelli (sound).
Northlight Theatre has a $2.1 million annual budget and is the resident producing theatre (using two venues) at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, at 9501 N. Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. The troupe has 9,000 subscribers.
For information, call (847) 673-6300 or try the web site at www.northlight.org.
— By Kenneth Jones